LONDON (AFP) - A 94-year-old British World War II veteran living in Italy launched a legal challenge on Wednesday against a rule barring long-term expatriates from voting in Britain's European Union referendum.
Lawyers for Harry Shindler and his co-claimant, Belgium resident Jacquelyn MacLennan, say they are being penalised for exercising their right of free movement across the EU.
Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are prohibited from voting in British general elections and as a result cannot participate in the referendum on June 23.
But lawyers from Leigh Day solicitors argue that the referendum franchise has already been extended beyond what is normal for elections, and should also include expats.
If successful, the law firm demanded that the government "rush through amending legislation" before the June vote.
The EU Referendum Act passed last year gives an exceptional vote to members of the unelected House of Lords, as well as to Irish and Commonwealth citizens living in the British territory of Gibraltar off the southern Spanish coast.
"The people it arbitrarily excludes are those UK citizens who are among those most likely to be affected by the decision taken by voters in this referendum," said Richard Stein, the Leigh Day lawyer leading the case.
"Not to allow them to vote on the decision whether the UK remains part of the EU is unlawful and we have asked the court to deal with the issues urgently so that the act can be amended before the June date, to include all UK citizens residing in the EU for however long," he said.
The High Court in London confirmed it received papers on Wednesday seeking an urgent judicial review of the compatability of the EU Referendum Act with European Union law.
"This is the first step in the process of applying for a judicial review, so there is no court hearing at this stage," a court spokesman told AFP.
"That decision will be made by a judge," he added, without giving a timescale.
Shindler, who fought in Italy during World War II and retired to the country in 1982, lost a challenge to the 15-year general election rule at the European Court of Human Rights in 2013.
"It leaves us speechless to think anyone can stand up in parliament and deny another Brit the right to vote," Shindler said this week from his home in Porto d'Ascoli.
An estimated 1.2 million Britons live in the European Union, according to a parliamentary report, and many are concerned about the impact that a so-called Brexit would have on their rights.
Leigh Day claimed that up to two million people could be affected.
A government spokesman said the franchise issue had been "debated, considered and agreed" by parliament.
He noted that in the long-term - but not in time for the referendum - ministers remained committed to a promise to scrap the 15-year rule.
A petition to allow all British expatriates to vote in the referendum, launched in November, has attracted almost 15,000 signatures.